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Team-first Fistric thriving despite reduced role

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

It’s been a somewhat strange season for Mark Fistric.

The hulking 6-foot-2, 233-pound defenseman has delivered the rugged, physical play that the Dallas Stars have requested of him fairly consistently when he’s gotten the chance, but has also spent far more time than he would have liked watching games from the press box as a healthy scratch.

The odd dichotomy for the 25-year-old Fistric remains in effect. Despite being scratched from the two contests leading into the All-Star break last week, the club’s coaching staff insisted it wasn’t because of sub-par performance, but more due to the improved depth of the Stars’ blue line squeezing him out of the lineup when everyone’s been healthy.

When offensive-minded rookie Philip Larsen returned from injury prior to the break, coach Glen Gulutzan was afforded the luxury of choosing which skillsets on defense he wanted to emphasize, and for those two pre-break games, which turned out to be a 5-2 loss in Minnesota Jan. 21 and a 1-0 win over Anaheim Jan. 24, he leaned more towards the offense.

“Fisty’s been a warrior for us. And with Lars coming in the other game, it had nothing to do with Mark Fistric,” said Gulutzan of Fistric’s recent scratches. “We scored four goals in four games, and I don’t think Fisty would be mad at me for saying that I think Larsen has a little bit more offense to his game that he does and we felt that putting Lars in would maybe give us a boost - and it did, he scored a goal. It depends what kind of game it is.”

Fistric stepped up in the first game following the break and looked outstanding in Wednesday’s convincing 6-2 victory in Anaheim, delivering six hits, including a thunderous check that leveled Ducks winger Bobby Ryan in the third period, while Nicklas Grossman sat out with the flu. And even though Grossman was back Thursday night against San Jose, Fistric’s performance in Anaheim forced Gulutzan to include him in the lineup anyway, as the squad dressed seven defenders and only 11 forwards instead of the usual six and 12.

For the coaches, it’s a nice ‘problem’ to have too many healthy bodies they can fit into the lineup at once. From the player’s perspective, of course, it can be a little exasperating, but it’s just something Fistric soldiers through because he realizes it is in the best interests of the organization.

“Being in and out of the lineup is just what happens I guess,” admitted Fistric, now in his fifth NHL season. “It’s frustrating, especially because I feel I have been playing really well and that things have been going well for me. We got a lot of depth on our team right now and the main thing is, I want the Dallas Stars to win and I’ll do whatever it takes for this team to win.”

Even if it means sitting out, which, through the season’s first 50 games, Fistric had done 10 times, including twice in the last four contests - even though he’s averaging a career-high 16:17 of ice time per game when he does suit up.

“I think it’s just a matter of, when you’re called upon to do your job and when you’re in the lineup, making sure that I’m doing everything that the Dallas Stars ask of me,” Fistric philosophized. “And if I’m doing that, that’s all that I can control.”

And while Fistric will never be confused with Sergei Zubov offensively, the Edmonton native who is the only Dallas skater to play more than one game that hasn’t recorded a point yet provides the Stars with a valuable physical presence.

Despite playing only 37 games, Fistric has compiled 143 hits, ranking second on the squad and tied for 13th in the entire NHL (fourth among defensemen), while his 58 blocked shots are fourth on the club.

Fistric knows he is being counted upon to bang bodies and clear the front of the net, and he enjoys that part of his job description.

“I think the physical part of my game is definitely something that separates me from the rest and that’s something that I can bring to help the Dallas Stars win,” said Fistric, who was the Stars’ first-round selection (28th overall) in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. “So every time that I dress up and put on the uniform, it’s the first thing in my mind - to make sure I’m hard to play against and physical and strong in the corners and winning my battles.”

“I think he’s been really good, the last month here especially, he’s been playing with an edge,” said fellow blueliner and frequent partner Alex Goligoski. “He plays within his role and he embraces it. It’s fun watching him out there when he gets going and starts laying guys out and stuff like that. He’s a big guy and he likes going out there and hitting guys. He has that asset, he’s good at it and he uses it. He’s been great.”

Fistric credits his volume of ice time with Goligoski for helping him look good this season, as the two seemingly polar opposites have formed a strong pair when they’ve been together.

“He’s an elite player, he handles the puck well, he’s a very skilled guy and I think we kind of complement each other,” said Fistric of the smooth-skating, offensively-talented Goligoski. “I can be the guy in the corners, doing the work in the trenches, and he can just play his skilled game and do what he does best. Whenever we play with each other, that’s kind of my mentality going into it - let him do the pretty stuff and I’ll go in and do the muck stuff.”

Besides making him unpleasant to play against, Fistric’s physicality can also lift his team’s spirits and inspire them, as well as sparking a roar from the home crowd, so the role is not one he takes lightly.

“There is such a thing as a good, clean, really hard hit,” said Fistric, who is well on his way to surpassing his career-high of 173 hits set last season in 57 games played. “That’s what I try to go for every night and I think that not only gives myself some space and time, it also builds momentum in a way for the team, too. If things aren’t going the way we need it as a team, maybe I can get out there on a shift and get a hit on a guy, and get the fans into the game at home and maybe get the guys a boost of energy. That’s the way I look at it, and that’s what I always try to look for. Sometimes it’s easier to let it come to you, but there are some instances that you have to go and look for it, and it also asserts myself into the game and gets me going as well.”

While Fistric gained a little unwanted notoriety earlier in the season due to a three-game suspension for a crushing hit he laid on the New York Islanders’ Nino Neiderreiter back on Dec. 3, he hasn’t let that change his style or temper his aggressiveness.

“I look at the hit now and it’s still up in the air now whether (I should have been suspended), but I’ve put that stuff in the past,” said Fistric. “I think it helps that it was such a hit that we all said was probably not even suspendable, it helped me mentally prepare when I came back that I still need to be physical because that’s what made me an NHL player and that’s what keeps me here. I think if I lose that part of my game, there’s not a lot that can keep me around.”

As Gulutzan noted, it won’t be Fistric’s offense that secures him a lineup spot, although that is one area that he has been paying a little more attention to lately. In both the Anaheim and San Jose games, there were times when Fistric made a nice play with the puck in the offensive zone, even carrying it in deep against the Sharks Thursday night once.

That has been a fairly regular occurrence over the past couple of months, something Fistric views as all part of his evolution as a hockey player.

“I think that comes into the fact that I feel defensively and physically, I’m asserting myself in every game and I think that I’m playing well and I think any time that you get confidence that you’re doing what you want to do well, that you can add a little,” said Fistric. “I think there’s always room to improve as a hockey player, and if I see a chance maybe to jump up into the play, obviously I’m going to pick my spots more wisely than an offensive-type guy, but any time you can jump up and help a forward with an out or keep the puck in, or maybe just carry the puck in myself, I can help the team and it’s definitely something that I’d like to add to my game. I think it’s just part of me growing as a hockey player and trying to get better.”

Either way, his contributions to the Stars’ fortunes cannot be underestimated. Even if he isn’t in the lineup next game.

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